Why don’t men work in childcare?

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Men are underrepresented in women-dominated caring professions worldwide. This underrepresentation is particularly extreme in the field of early childhood education and care, such as childcare work. According to an OECD study, in many countries the percentage of male childcare workers ranges from 1-5%. Despite this, both the general public and academic researchers remain relatively uninterested in men’s underrepresentation in early childhood education and care. So, why are there fewer men in childcare work than women, and why are people uninterested in this underrepresentation?

Childcare work is typically thought of as “women’s work”, as the vast majority of childcare workers are women. You may think this doesn’t really explain why there are so few men in the occupation, but it does, for several reasons.

Why are there fewer men in childcare work than women?

Firstly, because the field is women-dominated, people associate the care of children with women. This association is long-standing and is also likely related to the fact that women are still typically the primary caregivers of children within families. As such, it’s unsurprising that when it comes to the professional care of children, people also assume that women are more suited to, or more interested in, childcare work. The link between women caring for children and the assumption that they will be inherently good at it, can be explained by Social Role Theory. Social Role Theory suggests that the tasks or roles that we see people in most often become associated with those people. For example, we see women typically caring for children and assume that the skills and abilities required for the care of children are more common in women, in the same way that we see men in leadership roles and assume that men are more likely to have leadership qualities.

Secondly, this association of childcare work with women and with nurturing and caring abilities — which we also associate with women — is incongruent with the male gender role. Basically, there are social rules (or norms) which dictate how men are, and how we think they should be. In accordance with these social rules, men are typically supposed to be strong, assertive, and independent. Often, the social rules governing masculinity are set up in direct opposition to femininity, so not only should men have specific characteristics which make them ‘masculine’, but they should also not be ‘feminine’. It is unsurprising then, that men would be less interested in pursuing a career where they would essentially need to defy — or alter — beliefs about masculinity.

Thirdly, though also relatedly, men are still expected to strive for high status, high paying careers and serve as breadwinners in their households. As childcare work is a lower status, low paying career — in part because it is dominated by women — men are also less likely to pursue a career in childcare work for this reason. That is, it is not only incongruent with expectations for men’s character traits, but also with expectations for their lifestyle. With these factors laid out like this, it raises the question: is this even a problem? Or, more clearly, if men simply choose not to pursue careers in childcare work, why should we care? And how is this an issue of gender inequality?

Why is men’s underrepresentation in childcare work a problem? 

To answer this question, it might be best to first consider why people aren’t interested in this issue. Or, why are people more interested in women’s underrepresentation in science careers, than men’s underrepresentation in care-oriented careers like childcare work? Basically, people care less, at least in part, because they assume that men’s underrepresentation is not the result of discrimination, but rather simply because of a lack of motivation. But recent research has shown that men’s motivation to pursue a care-oriented career is affected by the amount of discrimination they expect to face. When men are told that they are likely to experience discrimination — or are told nothing, which reflects a real-world setting — they are less interested in pursuing the career. On the other hand, when men are told that they will not experience discrimination, they indicate the same level of interest as women in care-oriented careers. This suggests that men’s motivation is affected by anticipated discrimination, rather than simply not being interested in childcare work.

This is negative in and of itself – obviously, in an ideal world, everyone should be able to pursue a career that they’re interested in, without having to fear discrimination. But, in addition to this, the underrepresentation of men in childcare work prevents the potential for several benefits of more men working in the field. With women moving into more male-dominated occupational fields such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), men will lose out if they don’t mirror this expansion into so-called “gender incongruent” careers. In addition to increasing their job prospects, men working in childcare would serve to address the labour shortage in early childhood education and care. Further, with more men working in early childhood education and care, children would be more likely to learn that men and women are equally capable of nurturing and caring behaviours and being responsible for the care of children. This would likely reduce gendering in future generations and reduce the limitations boys and men experience as a consequence of their gender role.

So, where do we go from here?

Men’s underrepresentation in early childhood education and care is an issue of gender discrimination and gender inequality. Understanding this is a vital step in being able to make social changes to reduce this disparity and increase the representation of men in childcare work. In acknowledging this, steps can be taken to increase the number of men working in childcare. This can range from wide scale policy changes to support and encourage men’s participation in childcare work and early childhood education and care, but can also be as simple as encouraging boys and men when they show care for others. Small changes will make a difference over time, slowly reshaping the way we perceive men in childcare work and creating a more gender-equal future.

Suggested Readings

Eagly, A. H., & Wood, W. (2012). Social role theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 2, 458-476.

Haines, S., Nater, C., & Sczesny, S. (2023). Overcoming barriers to increase men’s representation in early childhood education and care. ChildLinks. https://knowledge.barnardos.ie/server/api/core/bitstreams/66e7f0d4-d42a-4ed2-8381-858a2269eea2/content

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Rapp, S. A., Brown, S. S., O’Brien, K. A., & Croft, A. (2022). Gender equality eliminates gender gaps in engagement with female-stereotypic domains. Journal of experimental psychology: applied. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000459

Sczesny, S., Nater, C., & Haines, S. (2022). Perceived to be incompetent, but not a risk: Why men are evaluated as less suitable for childcare work than women. Journal of applied social psychology, 52(8), 693-703. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12845

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